Relativism is not a helpful mode for grieving. By nature it has no fixed position, which is problematic when someone’s already adrift because one of the central fixed points of their life – a loved one — is gone. Bare relativism isn’t that helpful generally: how many idiotic conversations have been started in college classrooms (mostly by White men…sorry, some of us are working on it, I swear! #Kavbros #Squi) comparing the Holocaust to the Middle Passage or the Irish Potato Famine. These aren’t dumb conversations because of the topics’ importance — everyone is clear that they were exponentially tragic. But the attempt to quantify them, the comparison of their relative magnitudes, is the world-historical crime against humanity version of a pissing contest and world historically stupid. To have the conversation is to have lost it.
It’s ok to share your suffering or have exchanges with other people about theirs. This is an essential component of coming to grips with loss or tragedy of any kind. But avoiding direct comparison should be a major priority any time loss or trauma is the subject of conversation. Grief is not social currency. You don’t need to bring any of your own to participate in supporting or bearing witness to someone else’s.
There are I don’t know how many posts on my online widowhood support group about some well-meaning friend who, in trying earnestly to identify, compares the grieving person’s experience to their own loss – sometimes of a great-grandparent or beloved pet. I encourage everyone in ABSOLUTE terms to avoid this. This isn’t to denigrate these other losses. Just because you haven’t lost an intimate partner, a child, or a parent doesn’t mean you haven’t suffered. These “relatively peripheral” losses may seem to the person enduring that loss — with a grandparent or pet-shaped empty space in their life – pretty huge and plenty painful. The mistake isn’t in the type of grief being compared, but the comparison itself.
The rules of comparative grief apply with equal force to those of us who are widowed. Our grief is particular, but not unique. Or, rather, all grief is unique, because, like people, it is idiosyncratic and context dependent. We all follow our own grief groove. But the fact we all suffer is not unique. The minute I start to think that I need some special dispensation or privilege for my suffering, I enter into very flimsy emotional and analytical territory.
Who suffered more, the person who lost a spouse? The one who lost a child? The one who lost both spouse and child at once? Or the one whose child murdered their spouse and child? These questions lead quickly to a dusky absurd drawing room in a Faulker novel and they all end in the same blind alley as the Holocaust-Middle Passage palaver. All of these hypothetical people have searing hypothetical wounds. Trying to compare them only denigrates an already fraught process and makes an added burden of what is most often intended to be an empathic gesture – the attempt to say “I too have suffered, I too have grieved.”
|I don’t know who made this image, I saw it several places, but I love the combination of empathy and thoughtfulness it suggests.|
The problem is that grief is hard. I have dealt with grief a lot in recent years, and I still find myself wishing I could rewind and erase the tape from a conversation I just had where I put my foot in my mouth about someone else’s suffering. There’s not some secret garden of understanding that only the aggrieved have access to that holds the key.
The key with grief, as with most things, is present awareness: remembering the many threads that get severed when someone dies, the cascading losses that grief entails. It’s complicated, but if we act with an awareness that grief is pervasive an unpredictable, we are more likely to treat grieving people carefully (as we would want to be treated in a like circumstance, as I never tire of telling my kids! #goldenrulebrokenrecord).
Before I have an encounter with a person who’s suffering, I try to remind myself, prepare myself. I do this already in many situations: when I talk to your boss, during a job interview, meeting with a child’s teacher, or even trips to the doctor. We all arm ourselves with information and context so that we will be receptive to the information we receive and able to offer useful or opportune responses. I’ve learned that I can do this for grief, too. Here are some of the things I’ve learned:
1. Talk about the person who died. It’s 99% likely that the grieving person wants to do this, even if it’s hard for them and they can’t do it on their own. In fact, if it seems difficult for them to bring the subject up around you, that may be all the more reason to do so – you can grant a form of social “permission” or an overt marking of the subject as safe. Obviously, you shouldn’t drag someone into an unwanted discussion about loss, but a gentle signal that the topic doesn’t make you uncomfortable is a pretty safe bet.
Bringing up a loss in the immediate wake of someone dying is fairly straightforward. But, even after months and months, I still think about Nina continually. I am not as consumed by the subject now as I was immediately after she died, but it’s still present with me all the time, even if it’s below the surface. That’s all the more reason why bringing Nina up might be good for me – as time passes, there is much less focus on the loss, which can feel a bit like I’m still mired in grief while the world “moves on.” Discussing it can be a welcome outlet, a renewed form of permission.
2. Don’t look for the silver lining. Grief has no silver lining, except sometimes in darkest jest (“well, at least since Nina died I don’t have to argue about what I want to watch on Netflix…”). A good shorthand is that any sentence that starts out with “At least…” is probably a no-fly zone. At least what? There are no compensations in death and dying. Even if the person who died was problematic, it’s likely that the aggrieved is not celebrating. That’s for cinematic villains. The truth is, the more complicated the relationship, the more complicated the grieving can be. Don’t search for a silver lining.
|The ultimate “at least” approach to death.|
3. Unless it is an accepted core belief that the person currently feels and has expressed to you, don’t say anything about the dead person “being in a better place,” or the like (unless it’s a Good Place reference and the aggrieved is a fan of the show. In that case, go forking crazy, benches!). They may not believe in an afterlife and, even if they do, the “better place” is still potentially just a different flavor of the “at least” no-no. Grief can impact people in foundational ways, and a belief in the afterlife, or God, or anything related to the metaphysics of death and dying can be affected as much as anything. You can’t know, even if you know the grieving person well, how a statement about the afterlife is going to fall on grieving ears.
|What do you think the afterlife looks like? A grieving person may or may not need to know.|
4. Which leads to another generally sound approach: allow the grieving to guide you. If they want to engage the metaphysics of death, by all means, oblige them. But take their cues. In the religion example, if they are sure that not only does heaven exist, but they know which room number their beloved occupies, don’t quibble about the liturgy. If they have cast god from their hearts, the throes of grief are not the context to bring them back into the fold.
This is applicable to a number of other areas as well – including how to talk about the person who died. Beyond that, if the person wants to talk about the specific circumstances of their loved one’s death, you can engage and try not to make them feel awkward about it. While dying isn’t always part of our everyday conversations, it will almost certainly be at the front of a grieving person’s mind. The truth is that dying IS an everyday occurrence, just not for all of us all the time. Be able and prepared to have the hard conversations when you engage, particularly with someone whose grief is raw and/or recent. Don’t retreat into small talk or steer around the tough stuff if that’s where they are. It will be too easy for them to follow suit if they feel your discomfort.
5. When someone is grieving, they may not always be themselves, but it may not always be obvious. There isn’t always a black dress, streaming tears, or hairshirt to show you a person’s inner pain. They may be highly functional in many regards, but then plotz completely in unexpected ways (hypothetically speaking, of course: I am amazingly functional and would never succumb to such capricious weakness!).
I guess the advice here is: see grief as a larger framework than just the memorial service, sitting shiva, the wake, and the immediate aftermath. Read loss into your understanding of the person’s larger narrative, both in terms of the impact of grief being spatially-emotionally broader than just the dead person not being there (the cascading impacts), and temporally lasting beyond the immediate loss. It can be as simple as: be patient and understanding, but in view of grief specifically. I’m not sure I can define how specifically, but I’m virtually certain that if you do it, this will make the person who is grieving feel better and more supported.
6. Be both a ready and prepared helper. Never ask a person vaguely what you can do, or “is there anything you need?” Don’t put the onus on them, just do something and try to make it as seamless as possible. Reduce the amount of thought or leg work the person has to do. If you cook a meal, make arrangements for delivery and try to pack it in things they won’t have to return. If someone has established a meal train or other procedure stick to that, rather than freelancing.
Before you send anything, check to see whether the family has indicated preferences (“in lieu of flowers, please donate to the United Way, e.g.). I can’t tell you how good this feels on the receiving end when it’s properly executed – the weight lifted by not having to think or organize a thing is tenfold when someone is stricken — and I have been fortunate enough to feel this feeling many times. It’s not just a boost in feeling emotionally supported, it’s a practical benefit and a much needed one at that.
Also remember that what people need is not always material. Sometimes it’s just company, or to be left alone. Often it’s just unspoken understanding. Listen and be patient. Whatever else you do when you’re dealing with someone in pain, you should try to hear what they are communicating, even if it’s not overt. There is a tendency to try to make a contribution, bring something to the table, literally or metaphorically. But don’t be so eager to contribute that you miss what people actually need or want. Give space to grief, and even to silence, which can be awkward and painful. But grief, like life, I have found, is sort of endemically awkward and painful.
Okay, these are my hortatory blah blah blahings on grief. Take them for what they’re worth (technically nothing, this blog is non-monetized). Be gentle with yourself and other people. And I look forward to each of you doing exactly what I need now forever, amen.*
*Non-religious invocation, not an invitation for a disquisition on my faith.